One of America’s most powerful works of art and a must-stop for tourists and locals alike in Boston is the monument paying tribute to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment. This dramatic bas relief sculpture faces the Massachusetts State House and is the first stop on the Black Heritage Trail. The world renowned American artist, Augustus Saint-Gaudens was commissioned to create the bronze complex sculpture in 1883. The Shaw Memorial opened to the public in 1897 and is considered one of America’s greatest monumental works of art.
While the monument has influenced worldwide appreciation for African American military participation during the Civil War, there is still a missing public awareness and appreciation of local military camp where these troops were trained and formed a community.
Even after the Academy Award winning 1989 movie Glory made famous the story of contribution of the 54th Regiment to the Union’s victory in the Civil War, the Hyde Park location of Camp Meigs is largely unfamiliar to Boston residents. The camp has a fascinating history in its own right and in many ways is “sacred ground” not only for the 54th and 55th Infantry and the 5th MA Cavalry but for all the 35 regiments that were formed and trained there for service during the Civil War.
History of Camp Meigs, Located in Hyde Park
Previously a Native American campground and militia drill field, Camp Meigs was a perfect, flat river terrace suiting most infantry, cavalry and artillery units.
In 1861, a private resident named Ebenezer Paul owned 125 acres near the Neponset River and Sprague’s Pond and began to lease this land to the U.S. Government for $300 per year. September 8, 1862 is the first historical record of the land being called “Camp Meigs”, a name chosen to honor the
Quartermaster for the U.S. Army, General Montgomery Cunningham Meigs.
On January 1, 1863, Massachusetts Governor Andrew received authority from President Lincoln to organize the first colored regiment in the North which was a critical decision for the United States. On February 21, 1863, Lieutenant Edward N. Hallowell was ordered to Readville with the first twenty-seven men of African descent who were assigned under his command. One month later, the enlistees increased to 324.
Governor John Andrew, a strong abolitionist, recruited Robert Gould Shaw in March of 1863 to command the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. As recruits came in during April at the rate of one hundred per week, three more companies (E, G and P) were ready for muster by April 23 and Companies H, I, and K were mustered May 13.
On May 28, 1863 at 6:30 a.m. the 54th Regiment left Readville and marched in a parade through the streets of Boston before boarding a steamship for their first military engagement where they would earn undying glory for their actions at Fort Wagner, South Carolina. Cheering well-wishers, including the anti-slavery advocates William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass, lined Boston’s streets.